Thursday, December 9, 2010

Let Us Pray

Recently I was listening to a series of recorded lectures by a Christian teacher and I noticed that there was something in particular that was distracting me and bothering me about the recordings. Like many other teachers he always began his courses with a prayer but after listening to a few of the sessions I began to see a pattern in those prayers that made me uncomfortable. In the course of each of those prayers the teacher would explain various elements of the doctrines that he was preparing to teach. It was unmistakable that at least some portion of the prayer was intended for the instruction of his listeners. He would seemingly include information that he wanted to convey that might not be emphasized in the lesson. As I thought about this I began to recall various times in my past where I had heard prayers of this sort. They never really seemed to bother me much before but as I reflected upon this I began feeling somewhat unsettled. The main reason I was unsettled is because it seemed a bit disingenuous to me to begin addressing God and yet be speaking to those around you. Another reason why it bothered me is because I feared that perhaps as a teacher I had given such a prayer at some point or another.

It is not my place to judge the sincerity of the prayer of any brother or sister let alone one who is laboring in The Word for the benefit of the body. It seems to me though that prayer should be addressed to God and that there is something inappropriate in using prayer time to consciously address those around you as the primary audience rather than God. It is perhaps analogous to calling someone on the telephone but then carrying on a conversation with the person next to you as the one you called waits for you to finish. I recognize, of course, that this analogy cannot be pushed too far but still it seems that it is not uncommon for us to sneak into a prayer some kind of message to those who are around us rather than focusing on God during that time and it just feels disrespectful.

Of course all of this is, however, not that simple now is it? We recognize that there is a distinct difference between public prayer and private prayer and that indeed one of the most important elements of a proper public prayer is that it is edifying to those who both hear it and participate in it. Public prayer must always consider the occasion and audience and be appropriately fit for them. Reconciling these observations in a balanced way that provides a basis for building appropriate public prayers is not easy(at least for me). The best that I can come up with is that the prayer should be sincere. Everything that is said should be truly addressed to God though it also encompasses the concerns of the group. For example, it seems appropriate to me to ask the Lord to help us to remember what we heard in a sermon or class so that it might be applied in our lives or to ask Him to prepare our hearts to receive a particular teaching etc. It would seem though that this is a pretty wide grey zone.

There are undoubtedly a number of issues of personal preference that will influence how a person will balance these objectives in public prayer but in addition to the theological foundation for what we do we must also recognize that public prayer is also a form of public speech. In addition to being sincere in bringing our praise and petitions before the Lord we must also do our best that our words are intelligible, well ordered, and meaningful to those who are in our hearing. I began to think about how I might improve my own public prayers so that they were not a distraction to anyone in the way that I experienced with the recordings mentioned above. There are lots of suggestions out there but I found this list to be particularly helpful (#11 addresses the issue that led to this post). As I read it I was convicted of a number of opportunities to improve. I pray that it might be a benefit to you as well.

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